I’ve just started reading Bruce Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War and as I burrow into its erudite pages, I can’t help but notice how completely different things are now from what they were in 1860.
Yes, everyone likes to say that people are more divided now than any time since then, but it’s total crap. Most people have a historical memory that stretches almost back to high school. A very few may have been aware of politics when they were younger and an even tinier minority actually has studied history enough to have a feel for life before they were born.
But on the whole, “worst situation ever” generally means “worst situation for me since 12th Grade.”
As a public service, I’m going to outline some of the most glaring differences so that some small portion of the blogosphere might gain perspective.
1. A vote for a candidate is not a declaration of unlimited support
In 1860, secession was a frequent topic of discussion. The Democrat Party had split and people openly said that the presidential campaign was a referendum on the Union itself.
Nothing like that happened this year. Neither candidate was particularly loved, and a lot of people closed their eyes as they pulled the lever.
To then extrapolate that these coin-toss voters are now willing to go to war to support their reluctant choice is utterly insane.
2. There is no slavery
This is of course the biggest difference between then and now. Slavery was not only a moral issue, it was also an economic one as well. The South’s economy was almost completely dependent on slave labor to produce its cash crops. Every Southern politician had some level of dependence upon the Peculiar Institution. I know that it’s fashionable these days to declare that the Civil War wasn’t caused by slavery, but it was and they said so back at the time. This isn’t Yankee historical revisionism, it’s a cold hard fact.
Abolishing slavery would destroy the planter economy, undermine the independent farmers (who would now be competing with freed slaves for jobs) and upend Southern society.
“States’ Rights” was the rallying cry, but this was the one they were all talking about, and it was the failure of the northern Democrats to unconditionally guarantee slavery that split the party.
3. Sectionalism was far worse than it is now
We like to speak of “red America” and “blue America,” but the dividing lines are actually very fluid. Donald Trump’s electoral win is proof of this. He won for many different reasons, but the biggest one was that people split their tickets, particularly in Michigan. Trump appealed to a portion of the Democrat base that was completely ignored by the Clinton campaign.
It is not difficult to imagine Trump losing the Midwest if his administration fails, nor is it hard to imagine it expanding the map into Minnesota, Nevada, Colorado and even perhaps Illinois if his policies bring strong economic growth – particularly in the inner cities.
The point is that the current divide in the US is generally one based on current economic and social factors, not entrenched ones.
In 1860, things were much more rigid. “Free soil” states didn’t have much in common socially or economically with slave states. While we also have some geographic divisions, people of differing opinions are far more intermingled. Democrats cluster in urban enclaves while the suburbs and rural areas support Republicans. The maps may look brightly colored when sorted by state and county, but it really is a house-by-house division for a lot of areas.
Back in the day, the boundaries were much clearer.
In addition, the sense of local pride was much greater because they were so new. Most states were less than a half-century old, which meant that the people living in them took particular pride in the new entity.
They (or their parents) were charter members, and so loyalty to a state was much greater.
Though it may seem strange to us now, individual states actually had citizenship requirements. Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed in Michigan, famously declined to apply for it when he was stationed at Fort Wayne (in Detroit) as he had no desire to be associated with Michigan.
There is nothing even close to that now. Obviously, the citizenship thing is gone, and people set their residence based almost entirely on economic concerns, specifically taxation and jobs.
4. People used to be a lot more violent
This may come as a shock, but those costume dramas of ladies in fancy dresses and men in top hats aren’t entirely correct. The US was a very violent place, with mobs, brawls and duels being if not common, certainly nothing extraordinary.
People took honor seriously and anyone offering an insult could expect a fight. This applied even in the halls of Congress, where pocket pistols were commonplace. Bruce Catton quotes one wag as saying “the only members without a pistol and a knife were carrying two pistols.”
Remember, this was an age when low-level warfare raged in Kansas and along the western frontier. Every community had a militia and while they may have been more of a social organization than a military one, the people in them were definitely familiar with firearms.
Contrast that with today’s society when a good chunk of the country are abjectly terrified of guns – so much so that they want them banned entirely.
It’s hard to raise an army when no one on your side has ever touched a gun.
5. The national parties are just that – national
A key development in the road to war was the collapse of the Democrats as a national party in 1860. Despite every effort to hold the northern and southern wings together, the split was irreconcilable.
Imagine that Bernie Sanders refuses to accept Hillary’s nomination and instead walks out of the Democrat National Convention. Imagine the entire delegations of several states follow him and that they set up shop in a nearby arena.
That’s how deeply divided things were.
Also recall that the population was distributed in such a way that the Republicans could win the Electoral College without carrying (or even campaigning in!) a single southern state.
The GOP may be weak on the West Coast, but it’s still there and the Dems still have to work to hold onto their gains.
Finally, because the parties are both national, the Dems who aren’t based on the West Coast are desperately opposed to losing those states. Without California, Oregon and Washington, the Democrats would basically be destroyed as a political force in the national capital. The Democrat leadership knows this and that’s why they would never agree.
To put it another way, can anyone see Nancy Pelosi resigning her seat in Congress for a gig in California's state legislature? Didn't think so.
6. California is an economic and fiscal basket case
One of the often-overlooked features of the 19th Century was that public debt was frowned upon and therefore rare. Today it’s almost considered mandatory – particularly in Democrat-run areas.
California may still boast a large economy, but its debts are equally large. Implicit in that debt is the notion that if things get really bad, the feds will bail them out.
An independent California would immediately turn into Greece on the Pacific, needing massive infusions of cash from the IMF to remain solvent. Its currency would likely collapse as the government tried to inflate its way out of its debts.
7. Seceding states would themselves break up
The red/blue divide is not neatly geographically separated. Typically you have a deep blue urban core surrounded by purple suburbs and then red rural areas.
If a state like California tried to split off, those rural areas would themselves slit away. This is what happened with Virginia in 1860 and how West Virginia came to be.
The same dynamic (complete with mountains!) would happen on the West Coast. The coastal areas may want to leave, but the inland areas wouldn’t. Even along the coast there are enclaves of people who would choose to remain. How would the lines be drawn?
In conclusion, it’s a fun thought experiment when you are pissed about losing an election, but one may as well wish for a Unicorn Air Cavalry to come and destroy your enemies.